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Tom Elliott, comedian, magician

20 October 2017

‘The Church is often too serious, and doesn’t reflect the joyful side of God’

I created the Joy Ride tour because Christians need to be bolder in their evangelism style — not just in terms of how they speak the gospel, but in how they invite others to hear it. Many non-Christians are unfam­iliar with — perhaps uncomfortable, or simply culturally disconnected from ever stepping into — a church building. The Joy Ride tour is an easy-invite event, which takes the gospel into mainstream theatres in partnership with local churches.


The Affirming Life Trust is a char­ity I founded and direct, to over­­see the ministry of what I’m doing. But I always wanted it to be more than just about me: bringing on a team with a vision for re­­sourcing others. We want to equip others who feel called to evangelism, especially creatives, and I launched out full-time in September.


For a long time, I did comedy and magic in addition to a full-time job in youth ministry at the Baptist church where I worship with my wife and children. The leadership of my local church have always believed that God has given me the gifts to do this full-time; so, as op­­por­­tunities increased, I went part-time with the youth work to allow more time for this.


I’ve always loved the performing arts. I grew up in Gloucestershire with my parents and sister. Our home church was the Salvation Army, and that certainly played a big part in shaping my calling. My family can recount endless magic shows when I was a child, involving props made from shoe boxes and ex­­ces­sive amounts of paint. Through­out secondary school, I teamed up with a mate and did kids’ parties. He then got a proper job, and I carried on, moving it from kids’ parties to comedy nights in churches.


Yes, I do remember a first experi­ence of God. At the time, I didn’t understand it as a God-experience, I just thought some­thing weird was going on. It was only years later, as I began to mature in my faith, that I looked back at that day as the moment I first encountered the presence of God.


It’s the thrill of a live audience which gives me the confidence to do stand-up. The energy, buzz, and often some banter from them, is so much fun. I love that every audience is different, and therefore every show has a life of its own.


Research suggests that there might be only 500 full-time, paid evan­gelists in the UK. I’m always grateful to connect with those who, like me, have a passion for sharing the gospel.


I developed my craft throughout several years of belonging to the Fellowship of Christian Magicians. They helped me gain confidence, work on routines, and enabled me to watch others at work.


I once got stuck in handcuffs whilst locked in a mailbag. The audience thought my calls for help were part of the act, and so the laughs kept coming. In the end, someone had to let me out with my back-up keys. I never expected to use them. We had a good laugh about it, and to this day it’s a good story to tell.


Nobody else has ever got hurt, though I did once stab my finger with a knife and had to wrap it up in bandages on stage. But I finished the show. I suppose my success comes with lots of rehearsals and being on the road.


As I’ve developed in my art and ministry, many people suggested that I might become a mainstream comedian, like Tim Vine or Mir­anda Hart. This is very flattering, but I believe God’s clearly called me to be an evangelist. We need to have people in the third space of life, who can speak of Jesus to those who don’t know him.


A lady once came up to me and said “Are you into black magic?” I replied: “I actually prefer Quality Street.” What I do on stage is simply an illusion, a trick, a piece of en­­tertainment. The problem is, there’s no good word to use for it. Magi­cian, illusionist, trickster, con­juror: they all have “dark magic” links in some people’s minds, and so I’ve just settled for the title “magi­cian”, knowing that what I do is just good fun, clean entertainment.


As for the comedy, the God I know throws parties for the lost son. He’s the God who celebrates his creation, the God who says that his joy will be our strength in times of difficulty. Of course, God is holy and to be taken seriously, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy his presence. Actually, I think the Church is often too serious, and doesn’t reflect the joyful side of God. Children take their parents seriously, but they still laugh together. God’s holiness and authority is balanced with the per­son of a loving father who wants us to know the fullness of life. Surely that must include laughter?


I also recognise there is some education needing to be done in local churches on how to evangelise. A friend of mine, Michael Harvey, has done a lot of research about invitation, and found there’s a lot of fear about inviting friends to church. What happens if they come and don’t like it? Or the minister preaches about money, or some­thing else un­­­com­fortable? We need to reassure Christians that we have good news to share, and we can trust in God for the rest.


I’ve known friends go to a church which I’d never have thought they would have connected with, and somehow it’s communicated to them. Our job is to pray and to do the inviting, and leave the rest to God and his work. A friend of my mum’s went to a very traditional church; I didn’t think she would like it, but she became a regular atten­der, and got a great deal out of it.


Using the gifts of comedy and illusion makes inviting people a lot easier. We go to churches so they can learn what we do: we show a bit of the performance, and give the message about the theme of joy, so they can get a taste of what we’re offering and know that it’s some­thing that their friends might enjoy. The show is aimed at adults, but it’s suitable for the whole family.


I’m married to Natalie, have a beautiful two-year old daughter, Abigail, and a little boy arriving at any moment.


I love the sound of my daughter laughing. I love her infectious joy. I just hope sometimes that she is laughing along with what I do.


God’s placed so many influential people in my life. There’s a lady in my home church who committed to praying for me every day from when I was about 12. She’s now in her eighties, and that commitment re­­mains. I’m thankful for her.


My prayer is that people would know the joy that can be found in knowing Jesus. If God would use me in seeing that happen, then I’m up for it.


I most definitely have hope, because I know the God who has it all sorted, and will one day make all things new. When Jesus died on the cross, people thought he’d failed. People probably lost hope in the man they had grown to trust. But look what happened: he came back to life. He overcame death. Despite the mess our world’s in, I believe in a God who’s at work today, and, one day, will restore all things.


If I found myself locked in a church with anyone, I’d choose my fa­­vourite comedian, Joe Pasquale, be­­­cause I’d be so busy laughing at ridiculous things that I’d forget about being locked in.


Tom Elliott was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.tom-elliott.org

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